From Breasts to Boobs and Back Again

There are too many issues related to the recent Time Magazine cover for me to address them all. Is the photo incendiary? Yes. Did the boy have a choice about whether to be in the photo? Probably, but I doubt he understood it. Do kids really stand on chairs to nurse? Who cares, but I kind of hope so, because it’s hilarious. Are you a bad mother if you don’t breast feed your child? No. Is attachment parenting better than other kinds of parenting? No, it’s just different. Will I buy Time Magazine? No, I will steal it. Do I enjoy breasts? Yes. Do I like heavy metal music? You bet. Does that have anything to do with anything? No it does not.

I was breastfed as a baby. Honestly, I feel squirmy even typing “breast.”  Twelve years after I stopped nursing, breasts became boobs, and then in high school they became tits (and a plethora of other names), and now, as a husband and father, they’re back to breasts. I’ve come full circle. I see them as a means of nourishing children, and as sexual objects. I’m not sure how I feel about that. The fact that I sexualize the one piece of female anatomy from which I once fed, makes me feel grotesquely simple.  I think that feeling is at the heart of why people are uncomfortable with the recent image on the cover of Time Magazine.

There are plenty of reasons people have strong knee-jerk reactions to seeing a 3 or 4-year-old boy sucking on his mother’s breast, the most prominent of them is a general feeling that it’s “wrong” or “weird.” When you ask someone what they mean by that, their most common answer is, “Well, it just doesn’t seem right.”

Think about how you might feel if, instead of a boy, the cover showed that same mother breast feeding a 3-year-old girl standing on a chair. It’s different, isn’t it? The sensationalization of the photo isn’t only based in its ridiculous composition, but also on the gender of the child. If you haven’t already, consider the possibility that one of the reasons people find the idea so unsettling is because a boy of that age sucking on his mother’s breast looks and feels sexual.

I understand that we don’t often see pictures of “big kids” nursing.  I even do a joke in my stand-up that children should stop breast feeding when they start wearing shoes and jeans. Watching my child nurse while in his halloween costume was surreal. My wife feeding what appeared to be a limp Bob the Builder puppet was funny, sweet, and yes a little weird, but not gross or wrong. And it certainly wasn’t even remotely sexual. We aren’t really sexual beings until after puberty (don’t get all Freud on me here). And no, I’m not saying that kids should be allowed to nurse until they sprout an underarm hair. I’m simply pointing out that if you feel the photograph is vaguely sexual — and I think many do, whether they’re willing to admit it or not — you’re dead wrong. If you extract the misguided sense that the kid is old enough to enjoy a breast as if it were a boob, suddenly all those unexplainable feelings about it being wrong or gross, float out into the ether where they belong.

Any age we might come up with as a cutoff for breast feeding is completely arbitrary. Should a kid drive a Camaro to his mom’s house to nurse? Of course not. But should a child be weaned merely because it can walk, talk, eat solids, or change the wallpaper on your iPhone? The gut reaction is yes, but why? Is it because, as a culture, we associate sexual maturity with appearance? If the boy in the photo had been naked except for a diaper, would it have generated the same reaction? How about a tuxedo? Boxers and a wife beater? How about if he was wearing a top hat and a monocle? A fake beard? Holding a gun? Smoking a cigar? What if he was naked and had an erection? The last one is harder to read than the others, isn’t it? That’s odd, given it’s the only one of them that’s natural (and no, erections aren’t always sexual).

Let’s remember that the child is 3. Don’t forget how litte 3 year olds are. It’s why the photographer had him stand on a chair. Otherwise, he’d be sucking his mother’s knee. And that, of course, would be funny and silly, and totally ok, because the knee isn’t something that becomes a sexual object later in the boy’s life. But but but, maybe if he sucks on his mom’s knee, he’ll develop some kinky attraction to knees, and one of his girlfriends might publish a story in Cosmo called “The Knee Sucker.” oh my God, the horror.

It’s puritanical, and all based on highly subjective feelings. There are simply no facts (that I’m aware of) that show nursing after a certain age is bad for a kid.  Since it’s such a personal thing, maybe we should just leave it up to the mother and child to decide what’s best. Women are already fighting enough battles over what they’re allowed to do with their bodies. Let’s not add another one.

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jana says:

we call the first teeth the ‘milk teeth’, don’t we? do people forget the reason for that name?
as long as milk teeth last, that’s how long children used to be nursed in the long past.

Natsy Nat says:

Wow! Thank you for making me feel normal. My daughter is 3 1/2 and still loves to nurse at night when we go to sleep or take a nap. She also sleeps in our bed and believe it or not….she made it this long and one of us did not roll over on her. Guess what else? I breastfed in public and i didnt do it to make a point, i did it because my baby was hungry. At this age, she understands that it is private and something we only do at bedtime. Why did I breastfeed for this long and not force her to stop? It’s traumatizing! She cries when I tell her that she is a big girl and maybe she should stop. I feel horrible about myself when she starts to weep and tell me she loves “boobie.” She explains to me that she loves to lay with me and have me whisper in her ear and she remembers when she was a baby. COME ON! What damage would we do if we made them stop at a specific age? I’m not one to rush my child to grow up. This was a joint decision between my husband and I. He was always a breast man so he didn’t understand until the day she was born. He loves when all 3 of us are snuggled in bed. Does our sex life suffer? Sure. Doesn’t every married couple who have children suffer from that? Do we care? Not really. Do we need date nights? Yeah, but it’s always the 3 of us because what better than a 3 year old to hang out with.

Breastfeeding is a very personal decision. If you judge me for breastfeeding, I am judging you for feeding your kid synthetic milk made in a factory probably infested with rats using a fake nipple made of some foreign chemical that will probably be recalled when our kids are older.

Thanks for the great posts!

SARAH KOOPMAN says:

some babies suffer from severe reflux and their mommies have been advised to give them soy formula. some moms simply don’t produce enough milk. some moms only get 5 weeks of maternity leave. don’t be cruel to moms that don’t breastfeed. your comment was really good until the last paragraph. it may be true, but formula moms feel guilty enough already.

Sheri Brinkmeyer says:

Wow. I just found your site. Very well said. I really appreciate the perspective and candidness of your take on the issue. I find nothing sexual about nursing my 3 1/2 year old. I doubt any of us full term breastfeeders (or extended nursers or whatever you want to call us) do. It’s a way to comfort and feed our children, who will always be our babies despite them being 30+ minutes or 30+ months old.

Natsy Nat says:

I’m glad I am not alone. The bond between mother and child is amazing. I love our personal time and I am tankful to my husband for allowing me to be a stay at home mom so I could exclusively breastfeed. I don’t think rushing them to grow up is a good thing. :). Yay to us moms!

Megan says:

well said!

hahahaha…haha…enough said